Peter Shelton


Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on January 31, 2019

It happens most Januarys: a stretch of high-pressure weather with little or no new snow and warm temps more typical of springtime. In the Sierras we used to call it the January Thaw. Sharpen those edges, boys and girls! In Colorado, every dry spell, no matter its duration, leads to fearful whispers of “drought!” The only time in my five years in Central Oregon that June-uary didn’t happen was the “Snowmageddon” winter of 2016-17, when roofs were collapsing all around Bend and I myself shoveled (I actually did the math) 11 tons of snow off our roof.

Yesterday, January 28, on Mt. Bachelor I searched and searched for soft snow. I used all my powers of exploration and positive (not to say magical) thinking, but came up nearly empty. Bachy’s Fuji-like, volcanic cone had almost completely seized up following a nasty week of wind, rain, and rime ice that had signaled an end to the blissful cold-and-quiet snows of December.

It was a real corker of a storm cycle. Wind gusts reached over 100 mph. Trees blew down all over the place. Some big ponderosas fell across the Cascade Lakes Highway. Others tipped over onto the powerline that serves Mt. Bachelor from Sunriver. Then came the wet, and more wind, and a couple of balmy days when all the snow that had been hanging for months, up in the branches of the hemlock trees, came crashing down in great glittering chunks of compressed glass-clear ice.

Somewhere in there was a bout of new snow, which covered up the (now frozen) rain crust. But this layer was itself glazed over by some combination of “mixed precipitation” and the kind of inside-the-cloud riming that turns timberline trees into gargoyles and your goggles into frosted shower doors.

A couple of days ago a tiny salting of fine-grained snow, less than an inch, swirled around the upper mountain and settled into certain gullies. This was the snow I was searching for off the Summit chair yesterday. I tell anybody who will listen about Bachy’s near miraculous ability to cache soft snow somewhere on its 360-degree compass. But this day, it mostly wasn’t there. I went left, I went right. I skied the east side, Cow’s Face and down the big, naked halfpipes to the top of Cloudchaser. I tried the curves of some of my favorite snow-catching features down in the Bowl. I went over the Backside, down the twisting wave shapes of Larry Valley. Each route coughed up a handful of sweet turns: patches of drifted crystals; sections of wind buff that skied like squeaky Styrofoam but also didn’t last more than a few turns; and even, down low in Larry’s, some premature (or incompletely formed) corn snow on sunny aspects that had not frozen overnight.

The rest was garbage. Well, not garbage, of course, but extremely-difficult-to-remain-graceful-on carpets of loud, lumpy ice, textures the locals animate with descriptors like: “chicken heads,” “coral reefs,” and “sastrugi” – which sounds like something good to eat but isn’t. Sastrugi looks like the spitting ocean-foam in Japanese wood-block prints, frozen solid.

Rattled, I retreated to the machine-groomed slopes below treeline, groomers that were skiing pretty well, hard and smooth, if not exactly forgiving. But I’m a soft-snow guy. I decided to call it a day. This ride up the chair would be my last.

Then I saw her.

Just four or five turns before she disappeared, me riding inexorably up, she vanishing into the terrain below. What turns! I remember a white helmet. And what looked like slightly older Atomic slalom skis, with race-ready tip deflectors. And the turns were perfect, effortless sets of parentheses: )) then (( then )) again. Both skis carving. Sweet angles. Completely at ease on the bulletproof snow.

Who was she? I had to see her again. Sometimes there is a course set on Lower Leeway. Maybe I’d catch up to her there. It couldn’t be Bend’s own Lauren Ross. She was in Europe racing the World Cup circuit. And besides, Lauren’s a downhiller, not a slalom skier. Could it be her friend Resi Stiegler, of Jackson Hole, a stalwart of the U.S. Team who took over Lauren’s girls’ camp when Lauren was hurt a couple of years ago? But what would Resi Stiegler be doing, alone, on Mt. Bachelor in January?

I would never find out. There was no practice course on Leeway, no sign of my mystery racer. The low January sun had dipped behind Mt. Bachelor’s blue-white shoulder, and my racer girl had vanished into the unnaturally warm air.